If you are looking for a workhorse of a hike with a worthwhile pay off, take the more strenuous route to the peak of Rock Mountain via the Rock Lake trail. The track for this hike is a direct line of gain and punishment, but the weariness in your muscles will melt away when you are standing on the summit, one of three regal peaks along Nason Ridge in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
The trailhead sits right off Highway 2, a few miles east of Stevens Pass. The hike begins at 2700 feet, as you walk up a rough service road that allows access to the power lines that run west to east across the pass. Don’t worry, the trail soon leaves them behind and in the fall, vine maple and slide alder offer bursts of warm crimson, tangerine and marigold hues to distract you.
After a third of a mile, the decommissioned road takes a sharp left and you will see a sign for the Rock Mountain Lookout. A few wide switchbacks allow you a peek back down at your car before the trail narrows at a little over a half mile, beginning the grueling and exposed ascent up the slope of the Skykomish River Valley. You have 2,250 feet of elevation to conquer in just over two miles as the trail runs parallel to Schilling Creek that flows from Rock Lake off in the distance to your right. Unfortunately, you will not be have access to it so be sure to pack plenty of water. You are going to need it as this trail is dry.
Best attempted during cooler temperatures, you might wonder why you are putting yourself through this torturous climb with the sound of traffic droning softly below. The answer: the views at the top. Plus, a line-up of maple and birch, ferns and salal all cheer you on as you march up the twists slashed into the steep terrain alternating between soil, grass and rock. Counting the switchbacks may take you to over 90 before you reach your final destination.
There are benefits to all the exposure while you ascend, however, as your views of the valley grow with each turn. There are several ledged switchbacks, the first one a mile in, where you can pause and catch your breath while you take in peaks such as Arrowhead, Big Chief, Jim Hill and the Chiwaukum Mountains that present themselves the higher you rise. No trudging through a dense forest for you! It seems you can see for miles as travelers in their cars below go about their business crossing the state on the southern section of the Cascade Loop.
This more arid approach also means you enjoy Ponderosa pines towering overhead and an earlier hiking season with its southern exposure melting winter snow away at a faster rate. As you reach 4,000 feet the tree cover increases slightly offering some much needed shade and makes for a good time to replenish with water and a snack. You have earned it!
At almost 5,000 feet and 2.1 miles you are finally given reprieve from the zigzagging slog and the trail begins a contoured angle away from the Stevens Pass Greenway and delves deeper into the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest along one of several ribs branching out from Nason Ridge. With the exception of a few course corrections, the trail ambles straight and attains another 700 feet. An artillery sign warning at 2.6 miles might give you pause but as long as you stay on the trail here you will be fine. Not hard to do, it drops off sharply to Schilling Creek in the swale below.
With views of the ridgeline in between the trees as you look ahead, you may be wondering where the summit to Rock Mountain might lie. You won’t see it yet but rest your eyes on the glacially-eroded cirque above Rock Lake and see the Nason Ridge trail etched in the slope heading off to the east. Take a minute to watch any drifting clouds cast shadows as they float by.
As you wander through fir and hemlock giving way to heather-carpeted meadow interwoven with ground blueberry at 2.8 miles, you will see a peak looming off to your left and wonder if that is your destination. No such luck, it is just a knob on the end of a ridge you must gain first. There is yet another 1,200 vertical feet more to garner before you secure the apex of Rock Mountain.
Arrive at the junction with the Nason Ridge Trail at 3.2 miles, just over 6,000 feet high! Heading to the right takes you towards Rock Lake but your objective means turning left. The alpine meadows pocked with speckled and striated white granite continue and you will soon have a viewpoint overlooking Rock Lake. Be sure to stay on durable surfaces as you peer into the bowl below the steep slopes of Nason Ridge. A snowfield can linger here well into fall.
From here the trail makes its way over rock and encroaching meadow, rutted in places where water was drained down the slope. There are several nice spots here for taking in the views across the valley or a quick rest in the shade of gnarled trees on a rise next to the trail.
Shortly after reaching the ridge in another half mile and beginning a traverse towards the summit, you intersect with the alternate route that comes up from Snowy Creek, a longer and more gradual approach from the west. The ridge trail here is jumbled with small rocks, so watch your step to prevent twisting an ankle.
Continue on and in a quarter mile, find yourself approaching the stone foundation of the old lookout and the end of your climb. Views of Mount Howard and Mount Mastiff along the ridge with unending peaks in the panorama including Glacier, Bedal, Pugh and Sloan stand out in the distance. Mount Baker and Rainier will even make an appearance on a clear day.
Savor your well-earned summit before you head back down and subject your knees to the pounding descent of all those switchbacks. As you pass through the meadows below the ridge again, take time to notice the intricate designs nature has created in the plutonic igneous formations along the way, generated from fault movement of long ago. Lines and swirls in the rock tell a tale of the land’s history just as much as the crown you just stood on.